How to Deal with Difficult Clients

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I suppose this article could be titled, “How to Deal with Difficult People,” but I wanted to focus on situations where money is involved.

Some people love the way they make income, some don’t really care for their jobs. Either way, for most people, producing income means time away from your family or recreational activities. This means, it would be really nice if we could enjoy our time away from the things we love. One of the huge factors of loving or hating your job is the quality of the human relationships involved in it.

Our jobs could all be a little more pleasant if we set standards for who we will and will not deal with, and what kind of behavior we will and won’t accept from our clients.

Now, when I say clients, this usually means exterior clients like people for whom you provide a good or service in exchange for money, but it can also mean “interior clients”. These are your employees (bosses, underlings, peers) or a third-party you deal with, like the collection agency the company you work for uses, or private tutors coming in to teach at your public school, or any kind of contractor your company has a symbiotic relationship with. These are all people with whom it would be nice to share the same page.

There are three kinds of difficult clients: Complainers, Takers, and Devil-clients.


This first type of client is mildly difficult. When you see a Complainer coming, you see a dark rain cloud headed your way. Their lives are filled with drama. Whether it’s the fact that their husband forgot to TiVo “Desperate Housewives” last night, or the Colts lost, or their dog got bit by a fire ant last week, you are going to hear all the details. These are your people who may be reasonably likeable: maybe they bring you cookies or send you a card on your birthday, but when they talk, it is always about something negative, and it is always about them. They are always having problems.

Constantly complaining clients are people who are their own worst enemies. You may feel compelled to be their sounding board, or shoulder to cry on. You listen and are so patient. Then, you give them advice, which they don’t follow.  They get looped back in the same lousy situations, history repeats itself, then here they are again, whining and asking you for advice. This might be cute the first few times around, but pretty soon you are going to get sick of wasting your breath. You might even have a number of clients like this! Guess why? Because you have trained yourself how to expertly give these people exactly what they want, what people in your shoes of higher standards won’t give them. You are training yourself to accept this kind of treatment. Unless you are getting paid a respectable rate to be a psychiatrist, dealing with complainers is not your job. It is a waste of your income-producing time, and a mental energy drain. It’s not fair to yourself, your sanity, your company, or your family.

To deal with complainers, you must determine just how tolerable they are, and if continuing to have them in your professional life is worth it. Sure, for $1000 an hour you can complain all day to me. But for $40 an hour? Eh, probably not. It depends how much business you are bringing me. If you’re self-employed, hopefully this gives you food for thought. This is a determination you must make by outlining how much negativity is too much, based on what you are getting paid.

What makes complainers dangerous, is when they complain about you, or about something they perceive you did. Look up victim in the dictionary and this person’s picture will be there. Often, they are jealous when they see other people happy. They may not show it directly, but somewhere, someone is hearing a backhanded comment about it. “Isn’t it great that Mary is pregnant? Though I’m sure it was an accident. She was drinking a lot of wine at the Christmas party. Doesn’t she still smoke, too? I hope the baby is OK. Ah, I can’t wait until it’s my turn.” Listening to a complainer is a whole different animal than being targeting by a complainer.

As for a worst-case scenario about a seemingly nice client turned horrid whiner, I’ve got a story. I love to use my equine business in my examples because its my favorite industry to talk about, and I’ve touched the most people with it. In my limited professional career as a trainer, as of November 2012, I have taught horseback riding to roughly 750 different people. I am excellent at record keeping. Out of those 750, I have only had issues with two. One was a Complainer, and one was a taker. No potential Devil-clients have made it so far, though I’ve certainly turned people down for business because I knew we weren’t a match.

The first person who I had difficulty with is Complainer Corey Sherrell of Santa Barbara and Clearlake, California. She contacted me for riding lessons and came to her first lesson without incident. She seemed like a lovely, nice person, and I enjoyed teaching her and talking with her. A month or so later, I got a nasty personal attack via a review on a business listing site. You would have though I stole her boyfriend, gutted her cat, and slapped her mama. She chided me for my tattoos. Anyone who has met me or talked to me or read anything I’ve written can tell that I try my darnedest to be person of excellent character, and that I am also a person with a unique visual appearance and will tell it like it is, and I don’t sugar-coat my words whatsoever. I partake in honorable activities such as volunteer work with people with special needs. I go to civic functions like Young Professionals and Toastmasters and business seminars. I never, ever swear or use questionable language around people under 18. I don’t talk about religion or politics, I eat a mainly vegetarian diet, I read the classics, and I don’t wear belly shirts to church (not that I go, but still).

I am sorry, Corey Sherrell, so very sorry, that when I rolled up my sleeves because I was sweatin’ from teaching you so enthusiastically, that you find my tattoos visually abrasive, and that they somehow disqualify me from teaching both children and the elite art of horseback riding, as you so stated in your “review”. Additionally, I apologize for inspiring you to look into me further, via Twitter, and decide that you don’t like my modeling picture. There is nothing nude or shameful (not that nude is shameful, because it isn’t, but I know some people will disagree) in my work. Twitter doesn’t allow it. I am sorry that your boyfriend probably commented on how good I look, provocatively pouting on my dirt bike, or something that turned you against me, and that pissed you off. Pissed you off enough to try to sabotage my livelihood. If it makes you feel better, trust me, 99.9% of the time I don’t look that good. I admit, none of my work is photoshopped, a testament to which I am proud, but I don’t always look like that. I normally look like a goofy goon in sweatpants, mismatching socks, with dark roots growing out of my head. It takes a ridiculous amount of hard work, days of planning, and hundreds of shots and adjustments to get a respectable photo for a modeling portfolio, and obviously, I chose the best of what I had to present to my Twitter followers at the time. So sorry, I never meant to offend you with my appearance, and thank you for teaching me a lesson. Sadness remains in my heart for you, that you, Corey, judging from my personal encounter with you and your nice Facebook picture, seem like such a beautiful young lady with a bright future and a good life yet you hold so much fear in your heart. I hope things get better for you.

I hope that for all Complainers, because that is really where this attibute stems from: fear. Fear not of failure, but fear of success. But, I’ll save that for another article.

If you work for a company and have interior clients that are complainers, it gets a little trickier. First, acknowledge that they seem really distraught, and you’ve notice a pattern. If appropriate, bring up a few examples. If you can’t think of any, just wait, and take notes on their future woes, and then bring it up. The best thing to do is not to get wrapped up in their drama, and not to become the sympathetic ear they run to every times they need to vent. Be courteous but too busy. You  need to take a stand and let them know it sounds like they have a lot of complaints, and you really don’t feel you can deal with all that conversation during your work day. After all, you are at work, right? Don’t you have a meeting soon? Or a deadline? Or a Dr’s appointment? Or are waiting for an important phone call and need you head and ears to be free? Or have an online webinar you’re about to miss? There are plenty of other things you should be tied up in, pick one, and excuse yourself emotionally and/or physically from the situation.

I’m an animal trainer. If you stop giving attention to a certain behavior, whether it’s a positive or negative behavior, and positive or negative attention, the behavior will diminish. By finding compassionate yet immediate ways to halt and ignore complaining, you can make it go away.


This kind of client is moderately awful. But you need them. Or you think you do. Takers always want a deal. They could be smooth talkers or the could be in your face aggressive, but either way their manipulative ways make you feel uncomfortable. They are movers and shakers and you might feel in over your head when these people are around, because they seem so successful. These people leave no doubt in your mind they will throw you under the bus if it means an advancement for them. Takers can be shysty, overbearing, pushy, and intimidating. They may have a sense of entitlement, and may ask you to do things that are unethical if not illegal.

It’s easy for this type of client to play off the Benjamin-Franklin Theory. When someone asks you to do him/her a favor, it makes you more likely to do him/her another favor rather than that person taking a turn and doing you a favor. Got that? You are more likely to bend over backwards for that person again. He/she is not more likely to return the favor.

This brings me to my second problem-client. Taker Maribel Martinez of Riverside, California bought a two-for-one Groupon Deal I was running when I had a stable in Santa Barbara. She must have been excited, because there are a million stables in her area and yet she picked me! She was one of the first to call me to schedule. Because she lived nearly two and a half hours away and had a hectic work schedule, I agreed to let her just come once and split her coupon with a friend, rather than her coming for two separate lessons, as was required in the details of the deal. Additionally, I had not received my check from Groupon. Although I was privy to wait until I had the money before letting people come and cash in their coupons, due to Maribel’s work commitments, I invited her to come early. I tried to be nice. I tried to make her happy. I let her break the rules so she’d have a good time. All I want is for people to have a super positive experience at my business.

Well, Maribel and her friend got horribly lost in the mountains on her way to my stable, and called me. At first she was exasperated but friendly, as I gave her the address again, gave her verbal directions, gave her the website so her friend could use her smartphone as navigation, and agreed to stay with her on the phone until she arrived. In the mountains, however, cell service is spotty. I left the barn in my truck to go look for them based on landmarks they had given me. I even paid an employee to stay there in case they showed up. After getting disconnected and receiving calls from both Maribel and her companion, I could tell over the phone it was getting past their nap time. Apparently, while I canvassing the mountain roads looking for them, they found the way to my barn. They were really, really pissed. I like to think not at me, but at themselves for being so deficient in getting from point A to point B. From what my assistant trainer told me, they showed up in a huff, screamed at her, didn’t like the parking situation, didn’t like the horses, didn’t like the arena, and so on. I tried to call her back to rectify the situation. I tried to call her friend back. They ignored my calls. At the end of the day I tried  to call one more time, and Maribel’s phone was disconnected, ie. her number cancelled. I wanted to make right whatever they thought was wrong, and now, I couldn’t. I was not thrilled at how she treated me on the phone, but absolutely fuming that she treated an employee of mine poorly.  Whew! Just when I thought that was over, it came to my attention in the next few days that Maribel had dishonestly cancelled her payment to Groupon. Later that week, I got my Groupon check and Maribel’s money, for all that trouble, was not on it. Now, it really was a small amount, but it wasn’t about the money. I had to do something out of principle. I contacted Groupon and it was revealed that there are actually people who run this scam – they buy a deal, swindle their way in to convincing the merchant to accept their coupon, then act like the food’s not good enough, their child accidentally bought the deal without their permission, or they never received the good or services, etc. Whether or not that was the case, or if Maribel was just having an awful time, didn’t matter. Groupon’s fraud prevention team stayed in good contact with me and ended up sending me an additional check for Maribel’s lessons. I never could find anything online about her or under the name she gave me for her friend, which leaves me knowing she’s a taker, but wondering exactly what kind.

Depending on how assertive you are as a person determines the best way to handle Takers.

Identify this type of client. Determine if the chance of them getting you a big break is worth the inevitable fact they are going to screw you over in some way. They want to make a dime off you, and the person ahead of you too. How does this make you feel? If you have low self-esteem, you’ll probably accept it. That’s not good! Work on that. If you are confident, then you can probably recognize what’s going on here and can fade out a relationship with them, or push back.

Some people put up a tough image, but once you push back, they’ll roll over and want to be your best friend. Being a Taker in business, while that is a derogatory way to be thought of, probably is the end result of people taking advantage of them. Whether they’ve been pushed by a boss or “brainwashed” in training on meeting quotas and making sales, or grew up as the middle child, they’ve been funneled into a role of demanding what they want or else getting trampled on. Pretty soon that sense of power grows to no end, full steam ahead, out of control, like Tetsuo in Akira.

If you have it in you to push back and give them a taste of their own medicine by negotiating, talking big, and being too cool for school, you’ll probably be able to handle these clients. If you are feeling unsure, you’re new in the game, or are in any way lacking in experience or skill, I’d say put off these people and find ways to get that experience and confidence. You will inevitably find takers where you find money, so this is the one type of difficult client you’re going to need to handle repeatedly.

In the case of “it’s too late now” and they’ve got your money or your product or your pride and have disappeared into the night, learn from this experience. It may or may not be worth pursuing, but goodness help you, don’t let it happen again,

Devil Clients & the Blacklist

Normally, I aim to be Little Miss Zen, with wise and thoughtful words to share, one who keeps the peace, has the patience of the Dalai Lama, and is surrounded by serenity and joy with my golden flowing hair back-lit by the sun as Enya plays. Even I have my breaking point, too.

From this, I developed the Blacklist. Yes, I actually have a Google Doc named “Blacklist”, and if someone fucks up real bad, repeatedly, I have his or her name and notes recorded to remind me why I will never deal with that person again ever, no matter what. It’s not a long list, but it contains people who are so horrendous, they are not worth dealing with for any amount of money, not even a billion dollars. I would rather go to jail for a year than deal with them again. Yes, I have really met people I feel that strongly about.

Who would be on your Blacklist?

Devil-clients are your nightmare. You can’t even believe people this rude, fucked up, and awful exist. If you really decide you hate them and they make it onto your Blacklist, simply cut ties. It’s that easy. Don’t answer their phone calls, don’t send them a Christmas card, just end it. If you have something that belongs to them, give it back. If they try to contact you or maintain a relationship, ignore them. Block their number on your phone, tell your friends/coworkers you new stance, ban them from your Facebook, whatever. Move on. If you are dealing with someone who is truly that bad, no amount of money is worth keeping them around, trust me. You are probably not the only one who hates their guts, and very well may be one of the few people who will put up with them. But why? Why are you doing this to yourself? If you let them go, free up your time and space and mind, and surround yourself with positive, easy-going clients, huge new opportunities will come your way.

Difficult Clients in your Social Circle

Whether you’re having difficulties with a Complainer,  Taker, or Devil-client, all of this gets more complicated for clients who become your friends or are part of your social circle.

If they are a complainer, don’t let them complain to you. Tell them straight up how their choice of topics are negative and they are earning a questionable reputation. If they don’t get it, avoid them. Fight or flight. Don’t let them complain to you. A dog can’t piss on your tulips if you put up a fence.

Ah, takers. Tread carefully

If they are on your Blacklist, then you need to get really good at ignoring them. Just be polite and abbreviated in your encounters, and use your coping skills to move past them so you can have a good time and advance yourself.

I can remember when I was invited to a grand opening with a “casino night” theme. After socializing and networking over a few glasses of wine with people, I decided to sit down at the blackjack table. Who comes up and unknowingly joins the table? Someone who did me real dirty in a professional social setting. A Blacklister. I considered giving him a real piece of my mind, and boy did I want to punch him in the nose, but I remember the words my mother gave me, “kill ’em with kindness.” I wasn’t exactly kind, but I gave him a slow, close-lipped smile and focused on my game, the witty dealer, and conversing with the other players. And laughing. Not loudly, not obviously, but genuinely enjoying myself just as I would have had he not been there.  Note that I did not excuse myself as fast as possible, I waited him out and kept playing. I finished with the upper hand.

If you must be in the presence of a Devil-client, whether it’s before or after you cut ties with them, stand your ground! Be courteous, but not so courteous the devil-person thinks they are on good terms with you. You want your this person to walk away without anything bad to say about you. “Wow, I’m pretty sure thinks I’m scum, and boy, I really regret treating her the way I did. That was a mistake. She could have really given me a tongue lashing and made a scene, but she didn’t. She’s not a bad person, I guess we just didn’t jive. We’ve gone our separate ways, and shit, this whole thing did not make me look good. Lesson learned.”


De-shit your life. Decide at what price it’s worth keeping someone around who rubs you the wrong way. Meditate on your priorities. Act accordingly.